“Gangster High” sees Korean director Park Ki Hyung venturing out of the horror genre where he made his name with the groundbreaking “Whispering Corridors” back in 1998. Although Park eschews the supernatural in favour of brutal fist fights with “Gangster High”, the two films actually have a great deal in common, both featuring youthful casts, dealing with issues of bullying and victimisation, and revolving around less than complimentary depictions of the Korean education system. Although the title and glamorous looking DVD cover seem to suggest some kind of action comedy, the film is in fact a pretty grim look at teen violence, with plenty of bloody violence and shattered innocence.
The film follows a group of high school boys who come together after realising that they are all connected to each other in one way or another, and form a group called ‘Tigers’, first and foremost as a football team. However, before long the group becomes a gang, and after standing up for themselves they end up attracting the attention of some particularly vicious local thugs from a rival school. Making matters worse is the fact that Sang Ho (Jung Kyung Ho, also in “Sorry, I Love You”), the leader of the Tigers falls for Su Hee (Jang Hee Jin, recently in Ahn Byeong Ki’s “A.P.T.”), who just happens to be the ex-girlfriend of the psychotic head of their antagonists.
It’s fair to say that “Gangster High” is not a particularly plot-driven film, with Park being mainly concerned with following the main characters and how they develop as a result of the various challenges and pressures they face. The narrative does pick up somewhat towards the end, as the inevitable climatic showdown draws near, though this is more due to the rather obvious use of the awkward romantic subplot than anything else.
For the most part, the film tends to meander, and takes a while to really grab the viewer, with the attention being divided between the various characters, none of whom are initially given much of a backstory or much in the way of emotional hooks. However, once the viewer has gotten to know the characters a little, something which Park actually achieves quite subtly, the film is very engaging, and nicely sidesteps quite a few of the usual cliché and cheap stabs at sympathy seen in similar troubled youth efforts.
Although the film is essentially a fairly bleak affair, with harsh lesions being learned all round, and with a tragic ending signposted from the first frame, Park never lets things slip too far into doom and gloom. This makes for a refreshing change, and instead of being a non-stop onslaught of angst, the film also contains a few bright moments which focus on the joys of friendship and camaraderie, mainly through scenes of the characters playing football. Although the film’s themes of masculinity and violence is nothing new, it does at least offer a more rounded exploration, and one which is all the more believable and interesting for the way its characters seem to have a choice regarding their actions and ultimate fates.
All things deep and meaningful aside, the film is packed with brutality, most of which takes the form of fist fights and baseball bat beatings. The final scenes are exceptionally bloody, and the film degenerates into savagery in what amounts to one of the most successful and disturbing cinematic condemnations of violence in recent years. The promise of mayhem is constantly lurking throughout the running time, and since Park never shies away from showing its consequences, the film has an increasingly tense air as things threaten to fly out of control.
One of the real surprises is how much Park’s direction has improved, with the film being far more fluid than his early efforts, which tended to be a little stilted. Here, he includes some scenes of real cinematic flair, which fit surprising well with the generally grounded look of the film. The frequent fight scenes themselves are well handled and realistic, and are thrilling enough to inject some thrills when the film’s pace flags.
Although its premise may sound overly familiar, “Gangster High” certainly stands as one of the best teen violence films of recent years, with Park proving that he has not lost his touch when it comes to dealing with tales of troubled youth. Hard-hitting and gripping, it offers a different and arguably more convincing take on the usual themes, and contains enough vicious action to entertain as well as provoke.
Ki-hyeong Park (director)
CAST: Hie-jin Jang